There comes a time in the life of every young novelist when she starts to think zeppelins are really cool, and corsets and goggles and vague gear-based science seem to lurk around every corner, opening their jackets to her nubile gaze and revealing a lining sewn with all the books she might write involving Victoriana and steam-powered rockets.
Parents, talk to your children about steampunk.
It’s everywhere these days, isn’t it? Anime, Doctor Who, novel after novel involving clockwork and airships. Young women going about in bustles, for heaven’s sake! But it’s just as easy for the kids these days to get impure steampunk, cut with lesser punk materials.
Let me say it now and for all time, for the protection of your little ones: you can’t have steampunk without steam.
Most of the product on the street these days would more adequately be termed clockpunk or gearpunk–though the golden age of clocks was about a century too early to bear the ubiquitous Victorian sticker with which we plaster everything from the Enlightenment era to Belle Epoque. If there’s a corset and a repressed manservant, by god, it’s Victorian. Steam power itself seems rather inconvenient, bludgeoned out of the way by corpulent balloons and quasi-Dickensian dialogue.
It is my understanding, poor, un-hip child that I am, that steampunk correlates precisely with cyberpunk, substance of choice of the last generation: literature which addresses and delineates anxiety (hence the punk, also ubiquitous, also nearly meaningless now) concerning new technology, computers in the first case, steam power in the second. Yet in almost everything I’ve ever seen called steampunk (besides the powerfully adequate Steamboy film) that eternal gateway drug, there is no actual steam power to speak of, and precious little anxiety. Because we, in our current, painfully neo-Victorian culture, think all that old-fashioned stuff is so damn cool, well, the actual Victorians must have loved it, too, right?
Dare to tell your wee wastrels that it’s not all quaint manners and cufflinks–steam technology caused horrific scalding and often death, thrilling explosions and the utter terror and unfathomable joy–and which one often depended entirely on whether you owned the factory or worked in it–of a world which was changing so very fast, devouring itself in an attempt to lay just one more mile of railroad track. Again, I return to seriousness as a necessary addition to fantasy: if you want Victoria in your coat pocket, if you want the world that comes with her, all that possibility, all that terrible, arrogant, gorgeous technology, take it all, make it true, be honest and ruthless with it, or you’re just gluing gears to your fingers and running around telling everyone you’re a choo-choo train. Get punk or go home–and think, for just a precious second, about what punk means, the rage and iconoclasm and desperation, the nihilism and unsentimental ecstasy of punk rock. I’ve heard the punk suffix mocked soundly by everyone I know–but we should be so lucky as to live up to it.
If you’re going to go prowling for tophatted villians at night, seek out the pure stuff, the real, filthy, ugly, euphoric sludge at the bottom of a spoon, because that’s the Victorian era, that’s steam power, that’s a world shredding itself to death on the spindle of industry, hoping to wake up to a prince in a hundred years. No one wants to get screwed with a bag full of Drano and flaccid research.
But gears are so pretty. So easy. Why, you hardly need to know any science at all! Just stick a gear on it and it’s golden! Come on, Mom, just one clockwork automaton, please? Don’t be such a hardass.
And you can have them. They can talk like C3PO and everyone can eat gearcakes with brass icing for tea, and it can be a beautiful thing, but you mustn’t call it steampunk.